Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky warns you to beware the three-lobed eye.
"I have seen the truth, and I intend to show it to you. Do you wonder how it will seem? I will tell you."—Crawford Tillinghast, "From Beyond" by H. P. Lovecraft
I don't really need to tell you about the impact of Howard Phillips Lovecraft on the world of horror fiction. I also don't need to tell you that film adaptations of his work have been a mixed bag over the years, mostly because his thick prose and brittle plots have to be reshaped to fit the confines of cinema. When the films do succeed (as with, say, the work of director Stuart Gordon, easily the most consistent adaptor of Lovecraft), they often replace Lovecraft's tone of lingering dread—the sense that something indescribable is lurking in the shadows—with abandon, a leap into almost joyful chaos. After all, you can't not show the monster in a movie, even when Lovecraft's stories insist that real monsters are shapeless, ineffable, and likely to drive you mad with a mere glance. So instead, why not just show everything and go hog wild?
But the strangest thing to happen to Lovecraft in recent years is the new craze for producing and circulating fan films based on his stories. I noticed this a couple of years back, when a low-budget indie version of The Call of Cthulhu got a late-night screening at my local science-fiction con. It was an obvious labor of love and clever effort overall, mimicking the feel of a "lost" silent movie. It also garnered enough fan buzz to gain traction on the festival circuit. This clearly encouraged a lot of new Lovecraft adaptations (and a few older obscurities looking for a home) to come out of the shadows. The result is The H.P. Lovecraft Collection, a series of DVDs gathering together short films based on the work of Rhode Island's creepiest native son.
Volume 2 of the collection features as its centerpiece a rejected BBC television pilot from 2000. Based more on the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game rather than any Lovecraft story in particular, "Rough Magik" tells the story of a cabal of paranormal investigators called the "Night Scholars" trying to ferret out the secrets of a cult bent on awakening the evil god Cthulhu from his underwater refuge. The Night Scholars are led by a taciturn Paul Darrow, best remembered by British science-fiction fans for also fighting a losing battle against an implacable enemy in Blake's 7. Most of the pilot episode revolves around a flashback by a former Night Scholar (Gerrard McArthur), recalling how he learned about the dark conspiracy during a military operation in the Falkland Islands.
The pilot hits a deliciously creepy note right away, as we watch a mother surprise her two children with a shrine to her evil god ("It's the deep sea man," she says with relish)—before attacking them with a kitchen knife. Then she cheerfully explains her crime to the police. This is a horror show, no doubt. The grim tone does not let up. Even our ostensible hero, Darrow's Mr. Moon, strikes a sinister note, interrogating the reluctant Night Scholar under psychotropic drugs and generally treating everybody around him like pawns. Clearly the good guys have to be pretty ruthless in this show to survive against total evil. I do wonder, though, how well the show could have weathered such a consistently downbeat and weighty rhythm before its audience got worn down. Darrow tries to inject a little camp into the proceedings by sneering a lot ("I'm bored," he hisses when McArthur's character passes out too quickly during the interrogation), and there are times when the dialogue gets flaky ("There were giants in those days; things were more big"). Some of the exterior footage (shot on DV in Ireland) looks too flat to create the intended atmosphere. But overall, the show has enough dread to whet the appetite.
For those interested in how the series might have panned out, Lurker Films has included what appears to be the original show "bible" as an insert with the DVD. The producers were clearly ambitious, hoping to unravel the conspiracy serially over the course of the show's run rather than focus on the more conventional "monster of the week." (Judging from the booklet, the pilot episode shown here is actually the second story of the planned series.)
Producer Stephen Parsons, who works primarily as a composer these days, turns in a fairly formal commentary track: it sounds like he is reading from a script at times. He fairly gauges the production difficulties (like pointing out weak effects and even a drunk actor), and he does loosen up enough at times to make offhand references to things like "san loss" (loss of sanity points?) that make me wonder if he is a closet Call of Cthulhu player.
The disc fills out its program with two shorts by Bob Fugger. In "The Terrible Old Man," three fugitive criminals try to rob the house of a decrepit weirdo with really bad make-up that makes him look like Gary Busey after a bad bike accident. In "From Beyond," mad scientist Crawford Tillinghast shows his best friend the "cursed electrical machine" that turned his pineal gland into a conduit to another realm of icky alien monsters. You may recall a more flamboyant 1986 adaptation by Stuart Gordon, but both of Fugger's pieces are pretty faithful to the original stories. Admittedly, both stories were minor, early efforts in the Lovecraft canon. Fugger updates the stories to the modern day without losing much and his direction (particularly the shrewd use of color in "From Beyond") makes the shorts watchable. No-budget home-brew fan films can easily become unintentionally funny or painful. Fugger's films are actually pretty entertaining on their own merits, in spite of the terrible make-up, weak sound recording, and occasional flaccid pacing.
Fugger also turns in two brief music videos for a thrash metal band called Darkest of the Hillside Thickets. 'Cause dude, evil elder gods are so punk. Anyway, Bob Fugger is a real Lovecraft fan, tracing his inspiration to his geeky gaming days in Canada during a cast and crew promotional interview for "The Terrible Old Man."
You certainly are not buying a disc like this for its technical merits. "Rough Magik" is shot with a mix of film and digital video, and the mismatched quality is often quite apparent. Fugger's work is shot on Betacam and matted to widescreen—and the dialogue looping matches as well as an old Steve Reeves Hercules movie. But fan films can get away with a lot by riding on good intentions.
Just to give the whole business a more literary sheen, Lurker Video includes the second part of a long interview with leading Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi. The focus in this section is on Lovecraft's personal life and philosophy. Joshi gives an articulate overview of some key features of Lovecraft's work (and I say this having taught Lovecraft myself).
Technically, "Rough Magik" is no fan film, but its relative success as a stand-alone work (even if the series never sold) will likely encourage Lovecraft fans to pick up their cameras and make some horror movies. Most of those movies will probably be awful, a few will be decent efforts like the short films of Bob Fugger, a maybe a very few will actually reveal some new filmmaking talents. That should be good enough to keep the fan community going for many years. I'm sure Lovecraft, social misfit that he was, would have been appalled. His ghost is just going to have to learn to live with it.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Lurker Films
• Audio Commentary on "Rough Magik"
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